Due to its rich subject matter, longevity, and freshness, Turkish miniature painting of the Ottoman period occupies a special place in the history of Islamic painting. This form of art continued without interruption for nearly four centuries. There are examples of miniature painting which date from the middle of the fifteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Artistic trends and tastes are also evident throughout this period.

Ottoman miniatures and illuminated manuscripts were prepared mostly for sultans but also for important and powerful figures in their retinues. The most important of these works are still preserved in the place in which they were produced, for example, Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, and other palaces of the Ottoman sultans. Other museums and libraries in Istanbul also house rare manuscripts containing outstanding examples of Turkish miniature painting. In addition, Ottoman miniatures can be found in museums, private collections, and libraries around the world, most notably the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

A distinctive feature of Ottoman miniature art is that it portrays actual events realistically yet adheres to the traditional canons of Islamic art, with its abstract formal expression. Nearly all these paintings are concerned with important events of the day, such as Turkish victories, the conquest of fortresses, state affairs, festivals, formal processions, and circumcision feasts.

The nakkaş’s (designer-painters), of the Ottoman court were required to illustrate daily events. To preserve the freshness of the works they prepared and to ensure that the orders of the sultan were carried out, they worked very rapidly, with the result that the Turkish miniature is devoid  of fine and elaborate ornamentation. The Ottoman painter arrived at a spare mode of expression, free of superfluous detail and focused on the essence of its subject. Ottoman miniatures are also records of contemporary events, filtered through the artists’ own concepts of reality. The fact that Ottoman art fostered more portraiture than the art of any other Islamic culture, with the exception of Mogul India, is another indication of this trend towards realism. From the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, royal portraits formed an integral part of the art of the book.   

Ottoman miniature painting, which was periodically affected by different artistic influences, was essentially a form of what can be called “historical painting”. The bulk of Turkish miniatures comprise works of documentary value deriving  from the depiction of actual events.

The Historical Development of the Ottoman Court Miniature

In the Ottoman era, miniature art was produced for more than three hundred years. The earliest Ottoman Turkish miniatures were created under the patronage of Sultan Mehmed II some 150 years after the establishment of the Ottoman state.

Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror was not only a truly great statesman but a cultured man of liberal outlook. In spite of the fact that there was no tradition of portraiture in the Islamic world, he had his likeness painted just as Western monarchs did and for this reason invited Italian painters to his court. The most famous of these artists was Gentile Bellini, who is known to have painted a portrait of the young sultan when he visited Istanbul from September 1479 to December 1480. Mehmed also had local painters instructed in portraiture. From documentary evidence we know that Sinan Bey and his student Siblizade Ahmed were the two artists singled out for training.

In addition to portraits, a number of manuscript illuminations have survived from this period. These works, which were probably produced in Edirne, bear traces of the Timurid and Karakoyunlu Türkmen miniature styles found in mid-fifteenth century Shiraz. The clothing and usage of color prove that these paintings were produced during the Ottoman period. The miniatures illustrate the works of famous poets of Turkish and Persian literature. One of the oldest, the Dilsizname (Book of the Mute), is a work of Badi al-Din-al-Tabrizi, which according to its colophon was produced in Edirne in 860 H/1455-56 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ouseley 133). Another work of the same period is an undated copy of the Külliyat-i Katibi (Complete Works of Katibi) (TSMK, R.989). This work which contains the greatest number of miniatures from this early period is a copy of the Iskendername (Book of Alexander the Great) by the Turkish poet Ahmedi (Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Cod. Or. XC). The illustrations in this book dealing with Ottoman history constitute the earliest examples of ‘historical painting,’ which was to become the essence of Turkish miniature art.

Following the death of Mehmed the Conqueror, during the reign of his son Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512), artists were brought to the palace in Istanbul and set up in the nakkaşhane (imperial studio). Among these artists, were miniaturists, a truly original style of portant group. During this period, portrait painting lost its importance and painters in the court atelier devoted their efforts mostly to the illustration of literary works. Nurtured by the influence of Western Christian art on traditional Islamic miniatures, a truly original style of painting prevailed.

Following his victories over the Safavids and Mamluks, which had hitherto been the two most powerful states in the Islamic world, Sultan Selim I (1512-20) brought a large number of artists to the Ottoman court in Istanbul, most of them from the Tabriz palace. A significant number of these artists had been those who the Safavids had earlier brought from Herat to Tabriz, along with the last Timurid sultan.

The lengthy sultanate of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66), witnessed a gradual expansion and strengthening of the Ottoman borders. The number of artists employed in the imperial studio also increased during this period. In addition to these artists who had been brought from cities like Herat and Tabriz in the east, artists of other nationalities such as Hungarians, Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, and Georgians were also found. All rooted in different artistic traditions, all working together on a salaried basis to carry out the directives of the palace.

At first, the Persian influence, especially that of the Herat school during the Timurid period, was  apparent. Paintings in this style were found mostly in the works of the famous poet Ali Şir Nevai, written in an eastern dialect of Turkish.  However it was under Süleyman’s reign that Turkish painting began to acquire its distinctive and fundamental character. After his ten years on the throne, topographies of cities and fortresses and miniatures documenting the life of the Sultan gradually gained importance.   

The Death of Hussein Pasha Suleymanname (Book of Suleyman)

One interesting group of miniatures are those that illustrate military campaigns. A number of these, noteworthy for their great originality, were both written and illustrated by a certain Nasuh al-Silahi, nicknamed Matraki because of his expertise in a sport called matrak. Two of his most important works are preserved in the library of Topkapı Palace. One of them relates to events from the time of Bayezid II and its illustrations depict conquered fortresses and cities (R. 1272). The second illustrates Sultan Süleyman’s military expedition against Hungary in 1543 and the Mediterranean campaign of Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, the famous admiral Barbarossa, which took place in the same year 1608. It contains figureless representations of Mediterranean ports and cities and of Ottoman encampments en route to Hungary.

Nasuh’h best known work is the Beyan-i Mezanil-i Sefer-i Irakeyn (Description of the Halting Stations in the two Iraqs), which describes Süleyman’s military encampments near the cities they passed during his 1534-35 campaigns in Iran and Iraq (UK, T.5964) Nasuh’s portrayal of cities brought a degree of expressiveness to painting not found elsewhere in the Islamic world. Besides acting as sources of history, these miniatures paved the way for the development of a new form that can be called the “cityscape.”

It had been an Ottoman tradition beginning with Mehmed II to appoint a special writer to document the main events of the sultan’s reigns.

These chronicles are known as şahname’s (books of kings) and their authors şahnameci’s (writers of şahname’s). By taking the name of the Persian heroes in Firdausi’s famous epic poem, the original Şahname, the Ottoman sultans sought to supplant-metaphorically-their Persian counterparts. Though the tradition was already well established by the time of Süleyman, it was during his reign that the Şahname acquired its formal character and bequeathed us some of the most magnificient examples of Turkish miniature art. Süleyman appointed Arifi, who had gained renown for his poetry in Persian, to the position of Şahnameci and assigned him the task of writing a complete history in verse of the Ottoman sultans. In order to carry out the Sultan’s project, Arifi was given the most talented calligraphers and painters of the time. The complete work comprises five volumes. The first, in a private collection, is devoted to a history of the Prophets. The location of the second and third volumes is unknown. The fourth, called the Osmanname (Book of Osman. New York, Kraus Collection), describes and illustrates events from the period of Osman Gazi the founder of the dynasty, up to Yıldırım Bayezid, the ‘Thunderbolt.’ The fifth, known as the Süleymanname (Book of Sultan Süleyman is in the library of Topkapı Palace Museum and deals with the period between 1520-58 during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Illuminated with 69 miniatures, the book, highly innovative in layout, set the standard for later Şahnames. The elegance with which these court painters depict their subject marks a new stage in the development of the Ottoman miniature. From the point of view of Ottoman history, these are important paintings. They depict a number of victorious wars by which the Ottomans expanded their empire, such as the conquest of Rhodes, the siege of Belgrade, the Tabriz and Hungarian campaigns, the well known Mohacs episode and the seizing of Buda.

Tarih-i Sultan Bayezid Nasuh al-Silahi al Matraki

A variety of other scenes are also portrayed, including royal hunts, the presentation of gifts to the sultan, and the receptions, of famous people like Admiral Barbarossa and Devlet Giray Han, who was the ruler of the Crimean Tatars.

Besides the matchless illustrations in the Süleymanname, the reign of Süleyman has also left us important examples of portraiture. Turkish portrait painting, which began during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror but suffered a decline under his immediate successors, was revived during these years by the Turkish navigator Haydar Reis, who used the pseudonym Nigari and whose most important works are preserved in the Topkapı Library. Portraits of Sultan Süleyman, the great Barbarossa, and Sultan Selim II are among his works painted on single sheets. His use of dark green, bordering on black as the backround of his portraits is one of the distinguishing features of the artist’s personal style. Nigari was to become, next to Sinan, the master architect, the greatest Turkish portrait painter. The age of Süleyman the Magnificent made visible to us through the portraits of Nigari, Matraki’s city topographies, and the Süleymanname was an extremely important period in Ottoman miniature painting, firmly establishing its subject matter and giving birth to a new style.

The most characteristic examples of Ottoman miniature art were produced in the second half of the sixteenth century as a result of the patronage of Sultans Selim II (1566-74) and Murad III (1574-95). The reigns of these sultans mark the classical period of Ottoman miniature art and the most productive era in historical painting. Throughout most of these years, the Turkish and Persian works of Seyyid Lokman, the court-appointed Şahnameci, were illustrated in rapid succession by selected painters working in the imperial studio. Foremost among them was the master Osman, the greatest name in Ottoman historical painting and the artist who mostly shaped Turkish miniature art during the classical period. It is known from documentary sources that Osman occupied a position in the court atelier from the first years of Selim II’s reign, becoming its most productive and prominent member during the years 1570-90. In addition to working with Lokman, he was responsible for illustrating the works of other writers as well. For many of these projects, he headed groups of artists chosen from the court atelier and directed their work. In the period from 1558 until 1592, Osman and his team illustrated several of Lokman’s Şahnames, which are written in Persian and in verse. The first of these, which actually dates back to the final years of Süleyman’s reign, is called the Zafername (Book of Victories. DCB, No.413). Lokman’s second “book of kings, the Şahname-i Selim Han”, is concerned with Selim II’s sultanate (TSMK, A.3595). The third is the first volume of the Şehinşahname (Book of the King of Kings) and describes events that occurred between the years 1574-81 during Murad III’s reign (IUK, F.1404). The last Şahname to emerge from this collaboration between Lokman and Osman was the second volume of the Şehinşahname, covering the years 1581-88 of Murad’s reign (TSMK, B.200). These Şahnames, all with the same dimensions and layout, contain more than two hundred miniatures of a documentary nature, detailing important architectural works, military campaigns and major victories, important court ceremonies and celebrations, the sultans’ accession to the throne, and their deaths.


Ministry of Culture

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